(Written in 2003)
While some of the stories that circulated around the production made it seem not particularly promising (the story credit is given to one "Edmond Dantes", which is the name that writer/director John Hughes uses when he doesn't want to be associated with a project), "Maid in Manhattan" is a fluffy charmer, lead by a fine Jennifer Lopez performance.
While I remain fairly indifferent towards her music, I've continued to praise Lopez for her performances. Lopez continues to provide convincing efforts (even in the terrible "Angel Eyes") and shows fine comedic timing. Here, she plays Marisa Ventura, a maid at a four-star Manhattan hotel. One morning, she and another maid try on some of the designer outfits of a visitor named Caroline (Natasha Richardson).
What could have been a minor mistake turns into a meet cute when she's spotted by politician Christopher Marshall (Ralph Fiennes), who thinks that she's one of the guests at the hotel. The two hit it off and it turns into a case of mistaken identity, as Marisa has to try and keep up appearances with Christopher, while also working at the hotel.
In other words, we've all been here before. The film is light and rather forgettable, but it's still carried nicely by the two stars. While Lopez and Fiennes don't share a great deal of chemistry, their performances are strong. Fiennes especially seems a bit mis-cast in a romantic comedy, but he fits in quite well. The film also has a very capable supporting cast, including a terrific Stanley Tucci and an enjoyably over-the-top Natasha Richardson. I was also pleased to see Chris Eigeman ("Barcelona", "Last Days of Disco") as one of the hotel managers and Bob Hoskins as a butler. Some of the supporting maid roles could have been more well-defined, though.
Eventually, "Maid in Manhattan" simply falls prey to predictability. The actors likable, the story is pleasant enough, but we know where it's headed and it isn't getting there fast enough. The film's casual feel and low-key approach don't help either; the film really feels like it needs a boost of energy at times. Jennifer Lopez, who is unfortunately more read about these days for her fashion and current relationship than her talent, is very good here. If she's this good with ordinary material, I can't wait to see what she can do when she finally gets an extraordinary part. She needs another "Out of Sight", the role that really launched her acting career.
(Written in 2004)
Filling the required "chick flick" slot last holiday season, "Mona Lisa Smile" didn't quite make the impact that many seemed to think it would at the box office. After all, the film paired Julia Roberts - who's rarely had a miss - and the trio of Kirstin Dunst, Julia Stiles and Maggie Gyllenhaal, who are three of the most promising young actresses of their generation.
The reason for the somewhat lackluster showing wasn't due to the talent involved, I suppose, but likely due to the fact that audiences probably felt as if they've seen this before. They'd be right, too, as could easily be labeled a female version of "Dead Poet's Society", "Emperor's Club" and every other teacher-makes-a-difference drama out there.
Set at Wellesley College in a golden-hued 1953, "Mona Lisa Smile" stars Roberts as Katherine Watson, the school's new art history teacher who comes from California, is single and is in her 30's. While there'll be a legion of supporting characters, there's a few leads the film focuses on, and they're all types: Giselle (Gyllenhaal) is the flirty one, Joan (Stiles) is the brainy one and Betty (Dunst) is the bitchy one whose only ambition is to get a husband.
Katherine is upset to find that Betty's goal extends to the rest of the class, who are preparing themselves to be the wives of the leaders of tomorrow. They are only processing their schoolwork in order to spit it back out again, not formulating their own opinions or - as Katherine notes - "looking past the paint".
It's not terribly difficult to see where this is headed. Katherine will be "subversive" and try to reshape her student's outlook on the world beyond the campus, much to the dismay of the administration and maybe, one of the mothers of her students, who also happens to have quite a bit of power behind her. Of course, the film wouldn't be complete without a love interest (or two) for Katherine.
Gyllenhaal is easily the most enjoyable part of the film. The only one allowed to have a little fun, Gyllenhaal's naughty smile and terrific delivery of some very funny lines are refreshing in a film that, while about "breaking the mold", sticks pretty firmly to Hollywood formula (complete with happy ending where everyone's problems are wrapped up fairly neatly.)
Julia Roberts plays Julia Roberts pretty effortlessly and, while that's certainly rather enjoyable, it's nothing that we haven't seen her do before. It is nice, however, to see Roberts satisfied with not being the center of attention and sharing the screen-time with a more-than-capable supporting cast. Stiles plays a rather humorless character who we're never given much background detail on. It's probably her least interesting role, or maybe just the role she's taken with the least personality. Dunst is probably the weakest link; while I've greatly enjoyed the actress in other films, "bitter and evil" simply doesn't fit with Dunst and the performance is one-dimensional and unconvincing. Oscar nominee Marcia Gay Harden and Ginnifer Goodwyn (TV's "Ed") also give good, small supporting performances. The males in the cast aren't given much to do - even the usually funny Topher Grace ("That 70's Show") isn't allowed to do much.
Despite the considerable issues I had with the film, I found it somewhat enjoyable. It moves along rather swiftly; given the fact that it has oodles of subplots, it has the ability to bounce the focus someplace else every so often. While it doesn't always fill out supporting characters or subplots, the film manages to juggle all of its elements rather well. Director Mike Newell and cinematographer Anastas N. Michos shoot the film in a way that's golden-hued, ideal and not too static, yet doesn't call attention to itself or the nicely done period detail.
"Mona Lisa Smile" moves along enjoyably, delivers a few good performances and yet, it's familiar, not challenging or daring in any way and doesn't make the most out of the considerable talent involved.
VIDEO: "Maid in Manhattan" is presented by Columbia/Tristar in 2.35:1 (1080p/AVC). Sharpness and detail are very pleasant, as fine detail is present in many scenes. The Blu-Ray presentation boasted noticeably improved detail and clarity over the prior DVD release.
The only main problem remained some scattered instances of mild edge enhancement. The print used remained a notch or two below perfect, as well, since a couple of light specks were seen on an occasion or two. On a positive note, no compression artifacts were spotted.
The film's bright, vivid color palette was reproduced quite beautifully on the DVD. Colors looked accurately rendered, nicely saturated and crisp. Black level also remained solid, while flesh tones looked natural. Not without some issues, but a fairly nice presentation, nonetheless.
"Mona Lisa Smile" is presented by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment in 1.85:1 (1080p/AVC). The picture quality is taken down a tad by a bit of inconsistent grain, but remains otherwise rather pleasing. Detail is perfectly acceptable, if not exceptional - sharpness and detail seem lessened by the picture's seemingly intentional slight softness.
Pleasantly enough, only very minimal edge enhancement briefly appears. No specks, marks or other debris were visible on the print used. Finally, the film's naturalistic color palette appeared accurately rendered, with nice saturation and no smearing. Colors looked a touch cleaner and more pure on this Blu-Ray release, and the picture showed improved clarity and detail.
SOUND: Both "Main in Manhattan" and "Mona Lisa Smile" are offered by the studio in Dolby TrueHD 5.1. Although some of the songs are presented in a way that hints at a more immersive, enveloping experience, "Maid" mostly remains a standard "comedy" soundtrack. Surrounds essentially go unused, and aside from dialogue, occasional music and rare ambience are present.
"Mona Lisa Smile"'s audio presentation is, as one might expect, pretty conservative. Surrounds are used occasionally for some light reinforcement of the score and brief ambience. Score and dialogue seemed cleanly and clearly recorded, with no issues.
EXTRAS: "Maid" offers a series of trailers and bloopers, while "Mona" offers: The three brief featurettes included make up the majority of the supplemental section. "Art Forum" (6:30) has the main actresses discussing their thoughts on art and some of the specific art and artists featured in the film. "College: Then and Now" (14:39) has the cast discussing their thoughts about the characters in the film as well as the similarities and differences between what college students went through back in the 50's versus today. Finally, "What Women Wanted: 1953" (10:42) is a mixture of a "making of" and a look at 50's society.
Also included is an Elton John music video, filmographies and trailers.
Final Thoughts: "Mona Lisa Smile" and "Maid" aren't without flaws, but are otherwise mostly satisfying romantic comedy/dramas. The Blu-Ray editions of both films provide improved video quality and slightly improved audio quality, but the same supplements.